Litigator Brian Denney’s biggest inspiration? The strength his clients demonstrate every day despite the hardships they’ve suffered. And, after more than 20 years of experience trying cases – more than two-thirds of which have been at current firm Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley – he has been inspired by hundreds of victims who have turned to him to get their day in court.
Denney specializes in personal injury, medical malpractice and product liability, with cases ranging from automobile negligence to wrongful death. He has taken on massive corporations like Big Tobacco, including recovering a $21M verdict against two tobacco companies, and another $3.5M verdict in a wrongful death trial for a 92-year-old surviving spouse. In total, Denney has won more than $150M for his clients.
Those wins are what Denney loves about his career – not because of the personal victories, but because of how his clients feel afterward. As a plaintiffs’ lawyer, he explains, “You get to help people overcome something terrible that’s happened to them, and in some small way you are able to help make it right. A jury verdict can give some people closure because they get to access our justice system and see justice done.”
A member of the American Board of Trial Advocates, the Florida Justice Association and the Executive Committee at his firm, Denney has demonstrated a career-long devotion to making sure as many people as possible are able to experience that feeling.
Lawdragon: You have been at Searcy Denney for 14 years. Can you give me an idea of your career path leading up to then?
Brian Denney: I went to Stetson University for undergraduate and law school, and then got a job at a great law firm in the Tampa area doing defense work on civil cases. Then, I was offered an opportunity to start my own defense law firm with two other attorneys, which was a positive learning experience for me. But then I got married and was going to start a family, so my wife and I came back to the Palm Beach County area, and I ended up coming to work for the Searcy, Denney firm, where my father practiced at the time. It was a lot of fun practicing law with him before he retired.
LD: Tell me about your transition from being a defense attorney to a plaintiffs’ attorney – what did you find most interesting about that shift?
BD: To me, the biggest difference between being a defense lawyer and a plaintiffs’ lawyer is that when you're a defense lawyer, if a case is sent to you by an insurance company, you almost always take the case. By that time, usually there's a claim made, or a complaint filed, and you are in reaction mode.
BD: On the plaintiffs’ side of things, though, you get to select your cases. By doing so you get to build your case from the ground up, and then it's up to the other side to attempt to tear it down. I much prefer the plaintiffs’ side for that reason. It's less stressful to me because you have more control over the direction your case takes.
LD: That makes a lot of sense. Do you feel like your experience moving from defendant's law to plaintiffs’ law has helped you get a better perspective on all sides of the legal field?
BD: Yeah, it has. I really learned how the other side operated.
But my biggest takeaway was that the defense lawyers on the other side are not the enemy. They are professionals who deserve to be treated with respect. They're doing the best they can to advocate for their clients. That's their job.
BD: And they go home, and they tell their family about the good or bad day they had, just like we do. Or the good or bad experience they had with a lawyer. And when they work with me, I want them to go home and say, "We disagreed about the case, and, boy, he fought hard for his client, but he was a gentleman about it."
LD: I love that. So, now you specialize in medical malpractice, personal injury, and product liability, right? What do you enjoy most about those practice areas?
BD: Well, you learn something new every day in this profession. I do a wide variety of work here at the firm in different areas, all involving people who've been catastrophically injured due to someone else's negligence. So, for example, in medical malpractice cases, you learn a lot about best practices of medicine. In products liability cases you learn about the vetting process for products brought to market.
I’ll also say, it's hard not to become a very paranoid person doing this line of work. I now have a much better appreciation why my father was always the dad who said, "No, you can't go on this trip because this or that could happen.” It gives you a different perspective on the world.
LD: I'm sure. And you have four daughters, right?
BD: Yes, ma'am. Four beautiful daughters.
LD: Do you feel your job has made you parent them similarly to how your dad did you?
BD: Maybe a little bit, but when I get home, I don't talk much about work because I don’t want to freak them out about some of the horrible things that happen to my clients.
What they do know, though, is that their dad helps people. I'm the only man that they interact with for the most part in their day-to-day life. So, that's a huge responsibility that I take very seriously. I want to set a good example for them.
LD: Well, it sounds like you have been. And, obviously, as you said, you're helping people who have suffered from catastrophic injuries. Do you have any clients or cases that particularly stand out in your memory?
BD: Yeah, there are a few. I had the privilege of representing a young man who, as a brand-new teenager, was rear-ended by a Palm Beach County school bus, and he broke his neck. At the time, he was on a path to become a superstar basketball player, and the injury derailed his career.
However, he had a good surgeon, and this kid wound up being named by our local newspaper as the Small School Basketball Player of the Year for the whole county.
BD: Yeah. So, I learned a lot from him. We took the case to trial, but we didn't do it for financial reasons because we were suing a sovereign-immune entity. We did it for the principle of the thing.
The jury loved this young man so much for what he overcame in his life, and we wound up getting a nice verdict on the case. When the trial was over, all the jurors came over and gave him a big hug. He wound up playing college basketball. Then, he started a charity for kids out in Belle Glade, where he's from, which is an economically disadvantaged area. So, to be able to represent someone like that is such an honor.
LD: That's a wonderful story.
BD: He is a really super kid.
I’ll tell you about another one. I had the honor of representing a gentleman who was hurt pretty bad. We only had a $50,000 offer before the trial began. He had been traveling down the road when a bush hog tractor pulled out in front of him. He didn’t anticipate that, so they had a violent collision.
My client was very badly injured. He was undergoing cancer treatments at the time, but the treatments had to be interrupted because he was in the hospital with wires and tubes coming out of his body, having to recover from his injuries.
He had total faith and confidence in me to try his case. I took that responsibility very seriously and worked day and night to ensure that we’d get him the best outcome possible. He would pray with me at his request before we would go into court, in a private room.
He was just one of these people who was so inspiring to us, because of all he’d gone through. It was likely that his cancer was going to come back, and that the outcome was not going to be a positive for him, but he was able to just rise above that in his mind. The jury absolutely loved him. We wound up getting a big verdict, no doubt because of everything he had overcome and how hard he was working to get better. The defense had to pay his attorney's fees as well.
LD: Wow. That's great.
BD: It was. But on a personal note, the most moving part of the story for me is that midway through the trial, he pulled a Superman shirt out of his bag, gave it to me, and said, "You're my champion, Brian." The truth is, the real heroes are the clients, not the lawyers. Our job is to show the jury the kind of people that our clients are and the things that they've overcome despite all the bad that's happened to them. At the end of the day, the jury is awarding your client justice, not you. As attorneys, we need to check our egos at the door and put our clients in the spotlight.
So, those are just a couple of examples of people that I have had the fortunate privilege of representing. Those kinds of experiences change your life. It's humbling to see people who've been through so much have such a positive attitude about it. Those are the kinds of stories that I like to share with my kids.
LD: That's a great outlook to have on your role as a lawyer. And then what about some of your more recent cases – are there any that stick with you?
BD: Well, the ones that really stick with me now are the cases where I've represented children who have been hurt.
LD: Oh, I'm sure. Especially as a father.
BD: Oh, yeah. Kids are resilient, and oftentimes it's the parents who suffer more by watching their child in pain. Then, it's the kids who put on a brave face and wake up every day and deal with their issues.
I've represented brain-damaged children, children who've lost the use of their legs. And I'm always struck by how courageous they are. It's an interesting window into reality doing what we do, because we see the worst side of humanity, but also the best side of humanity. If you look into a terrible, preventable tragedy, you’ll first wonder how someone could have let it happen, or how a corporation could behave in such a callous way. But then you look at the family that's been hurt and you see how they pull together and how their faith can bind them and really get them through hard situations. That's very eye opening and humbling.
LD: That’s a great point. And then, throughout all these trials, what would you say that your style is as a trial lawyer?
BD: Well, I’d say that as a trial lawyer, I am honest with the jury. That might sound cliché, but it's something that I strive for. Be honest with your client, be honest with the jury.
That means admitting the parts of your case that might not seem to be in your favor and owning them, upfront. That means that you don’t promise things that you can't deliver to the jury. That means being respectful of their time. That means not trying to push the envelope and pull the wool over their eyes about something.
I believe that as a plaintiff, where you get to pick your cases, if you go into court, your case should be good enough that you should present it to the jury warts and all.
Another part of being honest is just being yourself. Be authentic and present your best possible case without unnecessary fluff. I think juries appreciate that. You can tell when lawyers – oftentimes young ones – get up and they aren’t being authentic or honest. And I think juries can tell, too.
LD: Absolutely. Honesty and simplicity are the best policies.
BD: Right. Lawyers can have something called the curse of knowledge where, when you learn something, it's hard to remember what it was like when you didn't know it. So, when you're talking to six jurors, you have to remember that these people are hearing your case for the first time.
LD: Absolutely. And, speaking of younger lawyers, do you have any other advice for lawyers just starting out?
BD: I think the most important thing for young lawyers is that you must know what you don't know. Check your ego at the door. If you don't know something, don't pretend that you know. Look it up and then ask for help from someone with more experience.
One thing that my father taught me is that hard work is how you get ahead. You don't have to be the smartest person in the room, but if you work hard and you go about your business honorably, you'll put yourself in the best position to be successful.
I think it's important for people to remember that nothing comes easily. Anyone who's had success in their life has had late nights, early mornings, study, repetition – all the things that come with being disciplined in any profession.
So, I think that when coming into any case, knowing what you don't know and being willing to learn, to listen to your client and let your client’s story guide the case – that's the best advice I could give to a young lawyer.
LD: That's great. And yeah, speaking of your dad, would you say that he was one of your mentors?
BD: Yeah, my father absolutely was. He didn't necessarily talk about cases around the dining room table, but what he instilled in me was a work ethic. That's more valuable than anything.
BD: My father drilled into my head from a young age that the harder you work, the better the result will be. And that stuck with me through the years. As a trial lawyer you have to be willing to get your hands dirty and do the work. You should never have to ask someone to do a job that you either don't know how to do yourself, or you're not willing to do yourself.
I think it's important that lawyers know how to do everything from carrying the boxes into the courthouse, to giving the closing argument, to negotiating the settlement to doing all of the little things behind the scenes that aren’t glamorous but that are necessary to win. Not only does that build character, but it's the right thing to do. Being a good leader is about showing people that you're willing to get down in the weeds to do the hard work.